Start of 2014

It’s now the start of the third month of 2014 and the start of a new academic year and here are some thoughts to kick it off.

Arizona

In January I visited Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona.  Both institutions are ‘Land Grant’ universities which means they were established primarily to benefit their communities.  ASU is widely recognised as a leader in strategy, information management and improving retention outcomes for its students.  ASU has a very similar student demographic to CSU and has a very sophisticated system for identifying students who may be at risk based on their academic performance.  It transpired that one of their key initiatives to improve retention has been to build residences and work on community formation – both themes which have been important to us at CSU.  ASU also has a commitment to achieve carbon neutrality and it was interesting to see solar panels everywhere – including covering the car parks and as shade structures around the campus in Tempe.

University of Arizona has a Native Nations Institute and, through its College of Law, an Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program (IPLP). Professor Miriam Jorgensen from the Native Nations Institute has been involved with CSU and other Australian universities on a collaborative research project to explore nation building for Indigenous Australian communities.  Several of our staff and members of the Wiradjuri nation had visited Arizona in 2013 to attend the IPLP.  The visit was a very interesting experience; there are significant differences between the context for American Indian communities in the US and Indigenous communities here but there are also strong parallels. In particular, they have focussed on establishing good governance structures and practices in communities to assist community and economic development.

What was really refreshing about both institutions was that they were genuine in thinking first about what their communities need and as a distant second about how this might play out in terms of esteem through global rankings.  As far as I could tell, this applied at all levels and was a significant change to the level of perpetual angst over rankings we seem to have in Australia.  I hope we will be able to continue the relationship with both universities.

Australian Federal Government Priorities

In the next few weeks we expect to get some information about the outcomes of the Federal Government’s Commission of Audit and Review of the Demand Driven System.  Needless to say, the whole sector is hanging on this because the impacts could be anything from negligible through to significant.  The Federal Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, addressed Vice-Chancellors at a dinner last week but it has to be said we ended up much better informed about the Minister’s views on the values of higher education (and the contribution of Sir Robert Menzies to it) than on any future policy directions.  Sadly, the Minister did confirm the Government’s commitment to imposing the efficiency dividend on the sector which was announced by the previous Labor government.  When Labor announced it, the Coalition condemned it and bizarrely now that the Coalition is enforcing it in government, Labor is opposing it.  Go figure.

O Week and Start of Academic Year

Last week, we also held O Week events and commencement celebrations on our campuses.  I was able to take part in the ceremony in Bathurst and in a welcome to students living in Residences.  In addition to new and replacement capacity in Wagga Wagga and Orange, there has been very significant refurbishment of residences on the Bathurst campus.  A very strong theme for us has been the value of residences in helping students to grow socially and succeed at their studies (this is similar to the experience at Arizona State University).  We know that it is more difficult to create a good community in a poor environment and we are hoping that the investment in facilities is going to pay off in better outcomes for students.  However, there is also the need for strong support mechanisms and with Paul Dowler and Ken Dillon I took part in the training sessions for the Resident Assistants (RAs) in the second week of February.  I have done this each year since I took on the VC’s role and I have thoroughly enjoyed it on every occasion.  They are a great bunch of very motivated people and it is always great to get a student’s eye view of the organisation.

Universities Australia Conference and MOOCs

As mentioned earlier, last week we had the Universities Australia Conference – at which I once again tried my hand at live tweeting and also ran a panel session on MOOCs.  The MOOCs discussion was an interesting exercise; as participants I had Professor Jane den Hollander, Vice-Chancellor at Deakin University, Professor Gregor Kennedy from the Centre for the Study of Higher Education at Melbourne University, Sally-Ann Williams from Google and Professor George Siemens, now at University of Texas but who started the whole MOOC thing at Athabasca University along with Stephen Downes.  I was very pleased to meet George personally for the first time.  I encouraged pre-discussion via our new Blackboard Course Site and also via Twitter.

In the discussion at the conference itself, it was plain that much of the hype that has been attached to the ‘MOOC’ label was a symptom of the wider change that is happening in higher education.  In particular, the internet and broadband connectivity has made it easier to consume information for all learners and easier to deliver education for all providers – everyone is a publisher now.  It is not a new theme but this does challenge us to focus on what distinctive value we can offer as universities because no-one now needs us merely to access information.  It is also clear that universities have embraced technology and are making dramatic changes in the way they deliver courses.  However, for many they are not yet skillfully using technology to reduce workload for both students and staff and we will need to solve that if we are to thrive into the future.  One point that should not be overlooked is that MOOCs have attracted those who are learning purely for interest and the love of it.  It is pretty hard to be critical of something that attracted most of us to work in higher education in the first place. However, there was a consensus that perhaps it was time to ditch the term and get back to talking about education more generally.

Finally, it’s worth saying something about themes that emerged in the online pre-discussion but less so at the conference. Some of my twitter correspondents mused on the cultural imperialism aspects of MOOCs.  Is there the risk that our intellectual life will become homogenised – and Americanised – as much as our suburbs have?  In one of his movies, Wim Wenders said “the Yanks have colonised our subconscious”.  There is now a global interest in MOOCs from developing countries but we should also be interested in this in smaller countries in the developed world.  That is, we should if we value our cultural identity. Another very interesting point raised in the online conversation was the relationship between the use of technology to facilitate teaching and casualisation in higher education.  Casualisation was almost unmentioned at the conference and yet it is a topic of intense concern to staff, both for that section of the casual workforce looking for a permanent position and for existing staff who are managing the workload associated with managing teams of casuals.

Student Demand and Challenges for 2014

We are still counting the enrolments for the first session of 2014.  Indications at this stage are that we will meet our budget target for load, which is good.  However, it seems plain from State and National data that the demand driven system is topping out and student demand is plateauing.  It is also plain that all universities are getting very much more competitive for students and that students are recognising they have more power and more choice.  On top of this, the ease with which distance education can be delivered via the internet means that there are many more players entering the market.  So, a lot more choice for students but no university can afford to be complacent.  We need to ensure we have courses that are relevant, engaging, that teach students well and deliver graduates who are highly employable as well as being well-grounded, decent human beings.  We also need to provide a great student experience and ensure that all interactions with the university work smoothly.  So, not much to ask for but this is what our Strategy sets out for us to do over the next two years.  2014, then, is a year of delivering on our strategy.  Some of this is going to be exciting and innovative, but much of it will be unglamorous with a fair bit of graft.  To use the words from our Strategy though, we need to have the gumption and the soul to tackle the task.

September Update

Enterprise Agreement

I thought I should start this blog with some comment on the recent Enterprise Agreement ballot.  I was very pleased with the level of staff participation in this ballot and of course that a majority voted to endorse this agreement.  As noted in communications to staff, I think that the pay increase of 11.9% across four years and the other changes represent a good compromise deal for the University and its staff in difficult financial circumstances following the cuts announced by the previous government.

‘Your Voice’ Survey

I also wanted to comment on the Your Voice Staff Survey.  Again, we had a really good response rate (about 80%) which I am very pleased about because it means we can be sure the results are a good indication of the mood of the institution.  An overview of the results can be found at the Your Voice Survey website.

Overall, the key indices we have chosen to measure our performance, the Passion and Progress indices, have improved by 3% against the 2010 survey.  This is good, but there are mixed aspects within the survey.  I’ll start with the not-so-positive aspects and then move to the better news.

One thing that is troubling is that some particular areas were rated worse than the last survey in 2010.  These included prevention of bullying, encouragement for evaluation of teaching, encouragement for collaborative research and commitment to ongoing training and development. On average, more than 50% of staff rated each of these positively but nonetheless it is cause for concern that the scores have declined.  There are variations in response across the University and we will need to work further to understand what has happened here, and what can be done to address it.

A second set of concerns is the areas that are rated least positively on average. These include good communication, change management, learning from mistakes, career planning, workload and consultation.  However, each of these has improved since the 2010 survey and they are now within a percent or two of the average for all universities.  Workload in particular was rated 9% more positively than 2010.  However, it has to be said that universities do much worse on most of these than the average of all industries so there is no room for complacency.

On the positive side, there were significant improvements in perceptions of the way CSU is run, buildings, grounds and facilities, environmental responsibility, support for teaching, research and community engagement.  We are at, or ahead of, the sector on all these and well ahead on environmental responsibility; 14% better than the average of other universities and 18% better than the average of all other industries.  It is interesting that the rating for satisfaction with income is 9% better than 2010, 7% better than the average of other universities and 10% better than the average of all industries.

The most positively rated aspects were role clarity, belief in the overall purpose of CSU, job satisfaction, mission and values and organisational commitment.  Again, these were improved from 2010 and ahead of the universities average, and significantly ahead of the all industry average.

So, what to make of all this?  People who work in universities love their work and are strongly committed to it from a values perspective.  However, they don’t think we communicate internally or manage change very well and they feel overworked.

I want to assure everyone within the University that I, and the Senior Executive, take the opinion survey very seriously. We will not be able to fix everything all at once and we do need to prioritise.  We have a process in place to work through the results right across the University.  The themes identified above will need to be priorities and there will be particular issues in particular areas.  The Division of HR is working through the results of the survey with all areas in the organisation and I look forward to working with you all to implement the outcomes from this.

The New Government

Obviously, we now have a new Federal Government which was elected with a significant majority. It is very pleasing that three of the representatives who have been particular friends to CSU and to regional higher education – Senator Fiona Nash, Michael McCormack and Sussan Ley have senior roles within the new government.  We congratulate them on this and very much look forward to working with them in their new capacity.

There has been recent media speculation about comments by Christopher Pyne, the Education Minister.  In my view, the Minister’s comments were largely a restatement of his views made clear before the election and I think there was little that was surprising.  Also I think that commentators have read more into the comments than was warranted.  Both Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne were at pains before the election to point out that they would take a considered and consultative approach to higher education changes.  Christopher Pyne is also on record as saying that they do not propose to reintroduce caps.

The suggestion of scrapping the Student Services and Amenities Fee is disappointing but predictable given the Liberal Party’s objection to its introduction.  The Prime Minister has played down suggestion that this will be a short-term priority for the Government.  However, if it were to happen it does have the potential to have a significant impact on our services to students and we will be lobbying to ensure the government understands this.  Once again, it has been pleasing to see many people, including Michael McCormack, coming to the defence of the SSAF in the media.

University Strategy

I have been making presentations across the campuses on the University Strategy – disrupted somewhat by acquiring the unpleasant cold virus that circulated in NSW this winter.  There are still a couple of sessions to go but, for those unable to attend, a recording of the second session at Wagga Wagga is available here.  I am also looking to organise a session via Adobe Connect for anyone who missed the earlier sessions or was unable to attend.

As you will recall, we finalised the top-level Strategy at the start of the year.  We have been working to finalise the sub-plans which specify in more detail what will happen in each of the 12 areas.  These plans are now close to finalisation and are being shared at the Vice-Chancellor’s Forum (VCF) this week.  Some of these have been out for consultation across the University already but they will all be shared more widely after VCF.

Online Learning

I mention this in the Strategy presentations but interest in the online space continues.  Whilst this is territory that universities such as those in the Group of Eight are now trying to claim as their own, it is an area in which we have deep capability and long experience.  Having worked at two universities which have strong capability in online and distance learning, I do not think it is so simple to rethink pedagogy to work in this way.  Therefore I do not believe that existing distance providers, or regional universities generally, will be swept away by Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) offered by universities that have not been in this space before.  I suspect there will be a bubble in this which will burst in due course.  I think we have a sound strategy to continue our growth and dominance in this area, including the appointment of new staff as mentioned below.

Smart Learning

The Smart Learning project, led by Professor Alan Bain, is now well underway.  This is a very significant project for us and will run over the course of five years.  The project provides a thoughtful, systematic, supported, documented approach to curriculum design.  I think that as higher education teaching and learning has become more thoughtful and professional we have missed approaches of this kind.  It will mean a significant change to the way we design curriculum but one that I believe is critical if we are to meet internal and external requirements for demonstrating the quality of what we do.  The project has a long time line and is starting with a set of pilot courses in each faculty.  We will, I am sure, learn a lot along the way.  However,  as far as I can tell, we are leading the sector with this project so I think this is a very important part of achieving our ambition to be seen to be at the forefront of educational innovation.

New Appointments

Finally, I want to welcome two new senior appointments.  Professor Heather Cavanagh has been appointed to the position of Pro-Vice Chancellor International Education and Partnerships after acting in the role earlier in the year.  Heather is a long-standing staff member at CSU having joined us in 1998 and having previously held roles as Acting Executive Dean (Faculty of Science) and Sub-Dean International (Faculty of Science).  This is an important role to achieve the objectives in the internationalisation section of our Strategy.

Professor Sandra Wills has been appointed to the role of Pro-Vice Chancellor Student Learning which she will take up in November. Professor Wills is currently Executive Director, Learning and Teaching, at the University of Wollongong and has a very strong background and international reputation in educational technology.  This is also a critical appointment for us in ensuring we retain our position as the leader in distance and online education.

May Update

Higher Education Funding Cuts

I had intended to write another blog post sooner than this but the government’s announcement of cuts to the higher education budget consumed quite a bit of oxygen over the last few weeks.  To reiterate the message I sent to all CSU staff in an e-mail, while these are serious cuts and will cause pain they are not large enough to threaten our viability nor to divert us from our strategy.  As a reminder the impact on our income will be $6.5m per year from 2015 onwards and we will need to find ways to fill this hole.  Also a reminder that it comes on top of previous cuts in last year’s Mid-Year Funding Adjustments.  At this stage we expect some of this to be met through general budget restraint, some through targetted efficiency measures and some through increased revenue.  Needless to say it is also going to put pressure on our ability to provide wage increases.  I think it is very important that politicians from all sides are reminded that voters understand the importance of universities and I would encourage anyone who does to complete the online petition at the Smartest Investment Website.

‘Your Voice’ Staff Survey

For CSU staff the most important message at the moment is about the Your Voice Survey.  This is the fourth time that we have run the survey, the previous occasions being in 2003, 2006 and 2010.  From previous experience, the detailed results will provide a rich picture of how staff are feeling across the university.  At the summary level two combined indices, the Passion/Engagement Index and the Progress Index are used as Key Performance Indicator for Council to assess the performance of the university and myself as Vice-Chancellor.  The first of these is a composite of job satisfaction, organisational commitment and intention to stay and the second is a composite of change and innovation, customer satisfaction and organisational objectives.  Whilst I don’t doubt there will be things we will need to attend to I am very much looking forward to seeing the results of this survey and encourage all CSU staff to fill it in.

NSW Teacher Reforms ‘Great Teaching, Inspired Learning’

Another potentially painful impact is the NSW Government’s ‘Great Teaching Inspired Learning’ (GTIL) Blueprint.  The plan to reform teacher education in NSW has many very positive points, not least professional development support for teachers once they are in practice.  An area of concern for us is in relation to entry standards into teaching degrees.  The key issue is really the proposal to require three Band 5 results for direct entry into teacher education.  Not too many regional students who currently apply for teacher education achieve this.  We know that regional students tend to perform relatively less well in the HSC and we are concerned that it might disadvantage regional and rural students as well as creating workforce supply problems in the future.

We are still working through the implications of this but it does have the potential to affect CSU students and education courses significantly. One possibility is that students might be diverted through a double degree to give them time to develop equivalent achievement levels.  This might in fact require little additional time so may prove to be a good solution for both students and communities.  The GTIL Blueprint does flag that there may need to be additional access routes for regional and Indigenous students so this may be the solution and we will continue to work with the State Government on this.

CSU Financial Results for 2012

CSU’s Annual Accounts for 2012 have been audited and submitted to State Parliament.  These were completed a week early and credit is due to Executive Director Finance Paul Dowler and the team in Finance for achieving this.  One of the key indicators of financial health is the surplus reported through these accounts. The normal target for not-for-profit organisations is to aim for a surplus of between 3 and 5%. Without this you are in fact starting to run the organisation down because you will be unable to maintain funds to invest in replacement of buildings and infrastructure.  Also you will lack a buffer against unexpected expenses or drops in revenue.  Our target is to aim for a surplus of over 3%.  The surplus figure also needs a bit of unpicking because the accounting standards mean that there are some distortions in the ‘headline’ surplus.  First, we are required to include capital money received from the government, which is spent directly on infrastructure, as revenue.  However, the expenditure is recorded as an increase in asset values on the university’s balance sheet and therefore does not appear as expenditure.  This distorts the bottom line and gives an inflated indication of financial health.  Revaluation of our investments is also included and there has been quite a bit of volatility in this following the Global Financial Crisis.  In 2012, the headline surplus was $22.9m but the adjusted surplus was about half this at $11.6m or 2.65%.  This is below our target range and is a function of the fact that our student load has started to level off from a peak of commencements in 2010.  This explanation is important because we are not starting from a position where we can simply absorb the Federal Government cuts.

Practice-Based Education Summit

I wanted to talk a little about the Practice-Based Education Summit organised by EFPI.  This fortunately aligned with other engagements I had in Sydney which meant that I was able to attend the majority of it.  I really enjoyed this summit and found a lot of parallels between the research discussed and the writing that I have been doing about organisational soul and leadership.  I also gave the first poster presentation of my career having managed to somehow avoid this early in my academic life.  The most important lesson I learned from this was to ignore the conference organisers when they tell you to print at A3.  However, it also led to useful discussions with a number of the participants for which I thank them.

CSU Ontario

University Council endorsed a revised business plan for the Ontario campus earlier this year.  We plan to expand on the ground numbers at the campus as well as using it as a base for increasing our distance load in Canada.  I visited our Ontario Campus in Canada at the end of April and had very good discussions with stakeholders and the Provincial Government about our future.  It was interesting to see that as national and provincial budgets tighten, Canadian governments are also cutting back funding to higher education.  Canadian institutions are now looking very much harder at international students and this will increase competition for Australian university student recruitment.

Welcome to Tim Wess, Executive Dean Science

I would like to close by welcoming Professor Tim Wess, our new Executive Dean of Science to the University.  Tim comes to us from University of Cardiff in the UK and we are very much looking forward to working with him.  Tim will be based at the Wagga Wagga campus but will be getting around to other campuses in the usual CSU way.

Further thoughts on strategy, mission and narrative

There has been a long gap since my last post in this blog as I had a couple of weeks of international travel for the university followed by Vice-Chancellor’s Forum and then two weeks’ leave.  Since then (as well as catching up on tasks) I have started my round of presentations to staff and we have also had a University Council Planning session.  In these I have been presenting my thoughts on the mission, or what I have called the narrative, of the university.

Soul Power

With apologies to James Brown, I wanted to start by talking about the notion of ‘soul’ for an organisation.  This was one of the concepts that was in my mind at the start of the year as it struck me that CSU really seemed to have it.  My working definition of this would be an organisation that sees you, recognises you and responds to you.  I think we will all have had the experience of engaging with organisations who seem the very opposite.

My sense is that by and large we do a pretty good job of this at CSU, although I would also be sure that at least some people will have different stories to tell.  However, for a university I think we should be aiming to sustain a strong sense of community and to be seen to have a soul.  If you don’t mind some gentle implied profanity, I quite liked Jonathan Fields ‘Commandments of Epic Biz’ and I’m also taken with Seth Godin’s notion of developing tribes.

So to roll on from this, in my presentations and through this blog I am looking to prompt some further discussion about what we should be trying to achieve as a university and about how brave we might be in thinking about that.

Have Universities Lost the Plot?

Let’s start with the question of whether the higher education system still has a soul.  Richard Hil has recently had a book published called ‘Whackademia: An insider’s account of the troubled university’.  I have to confess that I have not yet read this book but, from the publicity and from listening to Richard Hil on LateNight Live, the theme is broadly that things have gone downhill and it’s all the fault of corporatist university leaders and government bureaucrats.  My thoughts are that (a) things are not entirely as bad as this would suggest and (b) only some of it is the fault of university leaders and bureaucrats (although some of it undoubtedly is).  I believe there are systemic features of higher education which have led us to the current situation.

To focus in a little on the teaching and learning mission, one of the issues identified is whether we are being too instrumental and vocational in our approach to education.  In the promotional material for Richard Hil’s book on the web page he quotes an academic as suggesting we should think more about ‘peace, love, beauty, living sustainably, being an active citizen, getting along with your neighbours, building respectful relationships, becoming ethically and spiritually reflective, mindful, truly globally attuned with an altruistic rather than individualistic bent’.

Personally, I would fully endorse this set of aims and I don’t see a conflict between them and developing effective professionals.  On the contrary, in discussion with industry leaders they frequently complain that graduates are too vocationally focused and don’t have breadth of view.  (One energy company leader told me he really likes engineering graduates who can quote Shakespeare because it demonstrates they have a broader grasp of humanity, for example).  I am also of the view that events such as the Global Financial Crisis demonstrate the need for professions to take a wider moral view of their actions.

I don’t think I am alone in this. If you read anything about the history of universities, you will usually find the senior leadership embracing a broad view of education and encouraging inter-disciplinary studies.  And yet, most institutions get drawn towards discipline specialism and narrow technical focus.  Why is this?

One of the things that happens in the university system is that disciplines develop their own logic and power.  This is expressed in a structural sense by the desire of Schools or departments to protect their EFTSL streams and squeeze out other electives and in an individual sense by a desire for academics to teach their own speciality.  Both of these tend to lead to curriculum that is biased towards technical discipline content and therefore works against exposing students to breadth. This is a feature that has been actively managed in the history of CSU’s forerunners.  In Theo Barker’s history of Mitchell College he notes that a controversial restructure was partly to overcome Departments “… devising units that seemed likely to be popular and pushing them through the system onto the approved list … a Department presented a united front on such matters.  However, all Departments stood alone because each was indifferent to the woes of its rivals.”  As we have seen with the ERA process, there is also generally a higher value placed on abstract theoretical research and again this tends to drive academics towards pursuing speciality and theory.

Another issue is the systemic drivers of corporate finance.  Bill Massy, who was the Chief Financial Officer of Stanford University, gave a seminar a few years ago for the LH Martin Institute.  Part of what Bill presented was a mathematical proof that you can’t starve a not for profit organisation into following its mission.  This is because as money gets tighter, the organisation becomes more and more desperate to get its hands on discretionary income and hence behaves more like a for-profit corporation.

Of course, as long as people want to be paid to come to work, money is required.  I think that universities have probably always been somewhat guilty of chasing money (the reputation of vice-chancellors on this score has neither greatly improved nor worsened over the decades).  However, in response to the tightening of finances through the late 90s and early 2000s, I think Australian Higher Education did become a bit too focussed on finding ways to add to the bottom line without considering the fit to intellectual mission.  I don’t personally think there is necessarily a conflict between the profit motive and social good, but I do think we need to be clear about what our intellectual aims are.

For The Public Good

I will mention that we do talk about the mission and vision of CSU in a number of places, but nowhere do we any longer specify what they actually are.  ‘For The Public Good’ is of course the University’s motto, taken from Charles Sturt’s writings on his experience as an explorer.  Consistent with this, to borrow from The Castle, there is ‘the vibe’ about CSU of an institution committed to social good and its communities.  I therefore hope that what I’m going to lay out below chimes pretty well with what people are feeling.

From discussions at Vice-Chancellor’s Forum, I gather we have not managed to settle on an explicit mission for several reasons.  First, we are a very complex institution and therefore we have hit the usual problem on trying to formulate a mission, which is that everyone can object to something.  Second, I think we are conflicted about the notion of ‘regional’ as we are not sure whether this is a good thing to line up behind or not.  Third, there is the healthy scepticism about managerial nonsense and that we might end up with, to quote Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, “a long and complicated sentence which demonstrates management’s inability to think clearly”.

I will split it up with some thoughts on who we should think of as ‘the public’ and then subsequently on what we might mean by ‘the good’.

Who Are ‘The Public’?

So, first ‘the public’ and I believe this has to be the communities in our footprint in regional NSW.  I will start by saying I love the notion of regional.  I have lived in regional Australia ever since arriving in the country and I love these communities.  I have experienced regional Australia as friendly, vibrant, authentic and a place where people and their lives are important.  There is a wonderful sense of connection and community in regional Australia.

In Canada earlier this year I came across a wonderful quote from Greg Curnoe, a painter from Ontario in Canada who founded a school of painting called London Regionalism.  He said:

Provincialism is what people do when they live, as they think, ‘out there in the sticks’ and they try to imitate what they think is hip in the big centres.  Regionalism is simply what people do when they are at ease with themselves in their own environment.

Universities are a critical part of regional communities.  Some universities in the United States have begun to use the term ‘anchor institution’ to describe themselves.  An anchor institution is one that is a significant economic, social and cultural player in its region.  One of the tests is whether you would move your headquarters somewhere else.  In pressing people on our regional mission, this has been one of my litmus test questions and the answer is always ‘no, we would not’.  It is also worth noting that the CSU Act specifies that we should pay

…  particular regard to the needs and aspirations of the residents of western and south-western New South Wales

There has been a concern that embracing regionality might mean we put off students from metropolitan areas.  However, survey work conducted last year for the CSU branding exercise shows that students see us as “hard-working & practical; friendly & down-to-earth; environmentally minded; promotes individuality – no discrimination, equal chances”.  I would suggest that this perception matches perfectly the values of regional Australia and hence is true to our nature and appealing to those outside our region.  For a university that takes a serious interest in wine, I have suggested that there is an analogy there.  Wine is a product that is enjoyed globally but whose origins are an essential part of the reason for drinking it.  Likewise, we can attract students because of who we are, not just because of where we are.

The final point about regionality is the importance of engaging with Indigenous knowledge and Indigenous communities.   Indigenous people are a significant section of our home population and if we are to serve our community we must take educational achievement for Indigenous students seriously. Engaging with Indigenous knowledge provides cross-cultural competency (a critical skill in a globalised world) and also contributes to what Jack Manning-Bancroft, CEO of AIME, has described as a ‘richer sense of Australian identity’.

To build off that last point, to me regional and rural Australia is at the heart of the sense of Australian identity.  Many of the things that Australians are admired for abroad including friendliness, egalitarianism, honesty, directness, practicality and doggedness are in part founded on the history of engaging with the land.

Our intellectual agenda, including our approach to research, should therefore be based on the issues of our region.  A true university is one that is networked beyond its home region and therefore we should work with anyone in the world who shares our concerns.

What is ‘The Good’?

In relation to a university, which primarily affects what’s in people’s heads, my descriptors for this were:

  • ‘To lead a satisfying, fulfilling life and to strive for this for others’

or perhaps:

  • ‘Whole, wise, strong professionals in whole, wise, strong communities’

However, in reading the nominations we had made for Indigenous Elders’ awards, I was taken with a concept from Wiradjuri which is yindyamarra winhanga-nha, translated as ‘the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to “live well in a world worth living in”’.  I thought this was a lovely formulation and have asked the Elders if they wouldn’t mind if we borrowed it.

To map this into the kinds of people we are trying to foster in our communities, I would argue we need people who have the following qualities:

  • People who are excited by learning.   My belief is that the emotional kick from the ‘aha’ moments you experience through learning, scholarship and research is what keeps people interested in and committed to learning.  The desire to pass on this passion to students and the community is reflected in teaching, research supervision, publication and engagement.
  • People who have gumption.  I took this term from Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance a long time ago.  Pirsig says “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. That’s gumption.” The Dictionary provided on Apple Macs defines gumption as “shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness”.  Both seem to me to fit well with what is required to make an employable graduate, an excellent professional, as well as the best of the spirit of bush practicality. I do recognise that, unfortunately, people now tend to associate gumption with a particular brand of bathroom cleaner.
  • People who appreciate the physical, spiritual and the intellectual. To have a healthy community, I believe you need to have a sense of a full human life.  This cannot be founded on intellectual pursuits alone.  Again, as a university with strong interests in areas such as agriculture, wine, theology and Indigenous knowledge we are well placed to engage in a broader sense of human understanding.
  • People comfortable with themselves.  To be comfortable in your own skin, it helps to understand your own cultural background and what has shaped you.  Getting an insight into others’ cultures and worldviews is a powerful way to look back upon yourself and develop this understanding.  As the poet Robbie Burns said, “O wad some Pow’r the giftie gie us. To see oursels as ithers see us!”
  • People committed to community.  In addition to the above, there also needs to be an explicit commitment to developing and maintaining community.  I think this fits well with interests like Policing and inter-faith dialogue, as well as covering disciplines like social work and journalism.

I think these attributes fit well with, but I think slightly expand on, the eight commitments in the CSU Degree Initiative.  Through the CSU Degree Principles we do have a commitment to including breadth in the curriculum and ensuring all graduates have exposure to Indigenous knowledge, sustainability, ethics and global citizenship and internationalisation.  I realise this is a significant task and is providing a lot of work for the Course Directors and Course Teams, but I believe it is important work.  However, we may need to have a look at better theming the initiatives we currently have around teaching and learning.

Closure

I was excited to come to CSU, and am excited to be here, because I think we are a very distinctive institution.  As noted above, we are an anchor institution for our communities, we have a very diverse and interesting academic profile with a holistic view of human life, we are focussed on education for the professions and knowledge with a practical outcome.  We are still a young and dynamic institution; part of the feedback I have been given by stakeholders is that we are an institution that is able to get things done.  Also, we are not too seduced by our own importance.

Early this year, James Haire, Director of our Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture, talked to me about their work in inter-faith dialogue being about encouraging people to ‘bring their whole selves to the table’.  I really like the idea of a university that welcomes the whole person and to go back to the start of this, that seems to me to fit with the notion of an organisation with a soul.  I am very mindful of encouraging and nurturing that in my time as Vice-Chancellor.

So, I will look forward to continuing to discuss these ideas with the aim of pulling together a more explicit mission statement or narrative over the next month or two.

A Quick Catch Up

It has been far too long since my last blog post, although I have been putting out intermittent tweets as well.  It is in the nature of being in a new role that while it is ‘only’ about a month and a half since the last post, it feels like a lifetime.  The intervening period has been filled with a lot of travel and some more solid thinking about strategy for CSU.  To give some of the highlights through that time:

Canada

Towards the end of March I was invited to the Wellington Group meeting in Vancouver which is a semi-regular meeting of senior government officials and higher education leaders from English-speaking countries.  This was really interesting and it would be fair to say that all of those countries are facing the same issues of an ageing population and ensuring that education can promote innovation, social equity and economic productivity.  They are also struggling with resourcing higher education from the public purse to achieve those aims.  Another strong theme was the need for innovation in higher education and the question of whether this would come from public institutions or hungrier for-profit providers.  I think the key takeaway for me was that whilst there is a diversity of approach to higher education, no-one thinks they have a perfect system.  Australia is not doing too badly and people were particularly interested to hear about TEQSA and our national approach to quality.

As a side-trip before Vancouver I visited CSU Ontario in Burlington and really enjoyed meeting both staff and students there.  The students are a highly-motivated group and it was great to talk to some of them who will be undertaking placements in Dubbo later in the year.

Another positive was that Vancouver gave me an opportunity to practise acclimatising to the Bathurst winter by laying on sleet. Also interesting to note that Blockbuster in Canada has gone out of business because, with better broadband, everyone is renting movies online.

Technology in Tertiary Education

I was invited to speak to the Tech in Tertiary Ed Conference at the end of March at which I talked about technology and innovation generally, and how educational technology might serve, following Clayton Christensen’s work, as a disruptive innovation in higher education.  As noted above, it will be interesting to see where the private sector and international players go with this and what impact this has on traditional universities.  It does strike me that too often we have used technology to add work to the teaching and learning process, although I think we are getting more mature in our approach to this.

EIF Bid

Our Education Investment Fund bid for improved health facilities at Orange and Bathurst went through to the next round of application.  We were very appreciative of State Government support for this bid and of the work of our local members, and particularly Paul Toole from Bathurst, in achieving this outcome.

Port Macquarie

Operations at Port Macquarie are gaining momentum under the stewardship of Head of Campus Dr Muyesser Durer.  We are investigating site options for the permanent campus, as well as finalising the full course profile that we will offer there in the next few years.

PBE Summit

I spoke at the Practice Based Education Summit organised by our Education for Practice Institute in Sydney on the theme of standards and regulations and the challenges they provide.  Here I mused on the parallels between standards as used in engineering practice and as applied to higher education.  Overall I believe standards are neither inherently good nor bad, but that we need to ensure we use them appropriately to support quality but not drive out innovation.

Menindee

Two weekends ago I was fortunate to be invited along with other CSU staff to Menindee for a camp with Aunty Beryl Carmichael, an elder of the Ngiyeempaa people.  The country out to Menindee was spectacular after the rains, and listening to Aunty Beryl talk about her life and her culture was a very special experience.  Sunsets over Lake Pamamaroo and the view of the Milky Way from the campsite were magical.  We are very fortunate to have our focus on Indigenous culture as a university, and it seems to me there is much we could learn from the depth and resilience of Indigenous society.  If nothing else it gave me a chance to reflect on the importance of stories and traditions in cultural transmission and what that might mean for leadership at CSU.

Looking to the future

I think that brings things more or less up to date.  I have had a couple of weeks mostly in Bathurst which has given me the opportunity to catch up.  In particular, I have completed the three months I said I would take to familiarise myself with CSU and its processes.  As I have signalled at various gatherings, I do not think we need to make a left or right turn as an institution and for the most part we know our issues and are working on them.  I have shared some thoughts about tweaks we might make with the Senior Executive Committee and will be sharing those more broadly over the coming weeks.

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